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Time to Tax the Rich and Fully Fund Higher Education

Congratulations graduates! You have worked hard, but now we have a really big assignment for you.

We need you to save our democracy, address the climate crisis and reverse the grotesque concentration of wealth and power our country is facing. 

Are you ready for student political revolution 2.0?

The starting point is to organize around the appalling national scandal of student debt. Seven in ten college students are graduating this month with debt averaging over $37,000.

In case you missed it, here is a memorable quote from candidate Bernie Sanders from a Philadelphia Town Hall meeting.

“If the young people of this country stood up and were very loud and clear that they are sick and tired of leaving college $30,000, $50,000, $70,000 in debt, that they want public colleges and universities tuition-free, and if millions of them stood up, started emailing, writing and demonstrating, without the slightest doubt, that is exactly what would happen.”

Sanders is absolutely right. If the 40 million people who are holding $1.3 trillion in student debt organized to be a political force in this country, it would transform the future.

Remember, if you owe $40,000, the bank owns you. But if you hold $1.3 trillion in debt, you own the bank.

So what is holding you back, graduates? (Aside from needing a break and a job?).I know you’ve been told that your economic life is private and that you have your own personal plan to pay back your student debt. Don’t complain about your debt or the lousy job market. Be positive. No one likes a whiner.

If you haven’t landed a fat five or six figure job out of college with a signing bonus –and you don’t see a pathway out of debt—you have been told to quietly live in your own world of private shame because there is something wrong with you.

So what if you attended one of these for-profit colleges that promised a good paying job that isn’t there? Or that you signed up for a loan program you didn’t fully understand –and now it’s requiring you to pay half your income. Isn’t that your private problem?

You are not alone. Most people in the U.S. experience economic hardship as a private and individualized experience. It is only when there is a large collective experience of misery –like the economic meltdown of 2009 –that people realize they are not the only ones struggling and there is a system problem.

Well here’s the public secret. There is no previous generation of college students whohave had to carry such a burden. In fact, part of the problem is the boomers who control the political system are mostly clueless as to how things have changed (of course, some of them are your parents, but they still might be clueless).

Between 1945 and 1975, millions of Americans received debt free higher educations. This was part of the great “white affirmative action program” after World War II, but by the 1970s, more people of color were also sharing the benefits. Some of these were connected to military service, such as the GI Bill. But millions of others simply attended the great public universities of our land, when tuition could be paid with a summer job painting houses or waiting on tables.

They didn’t look over lists of 22 different financing options. These folks graduated, moved on, and didn’t spend the next decade looking backward at their college debt. Some were fortunate enough to save money, buy houses, start families, and get additional training and education, without becoming indentured servants.

For previous generations of college borrowers, the government student loan programs had more grants and were not as rigorously enforced. Now you’ve got for-profit loan sharks tracking you down and rules exempting student debt from bankruptcy laws. It’s not your grandpa’s student loan.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But it’s also understandable that you are not politically organized around this yet. We may have to face a more broadly experienced economic bump in the road when people can’t pay back their loans for people to come together.

It’s not that there isn’t stress and pain. Over 43 percent of student loan borrowers are in default or behind in their payments. These people are quietly suffering, avoiding phone calls and letters and emails. They will have a black mark on their credit for the rest of their lives.

The big difference from your grandparents’ childhood to today is that we used to tax the rich and invest in higher education. Today, the politicians have cut taxes on the rich –and raised your tuition bill.

That’s why Bernie is right: if you decide to flex your political muscles and stand up –it will change the politics of this country.

Demand the restoration of taxes on millionaires and billionaires and fund free education at public universities and colleges. It will reduce inequality and expand opportunity.

Don’t underestimate your power at this political moment. Work for the candidates with this program or challenge the incumbents. Demonstrate, organize, and raise your voice. This is what a political revolution looks like.

Learn More

More Than 40% of Student Borrowers Aren’t Making Payments

MSNBC Town Hall with Bernie Sanders moderated by Chris Hayes

Written by Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of Inequality.org.  His forthcoming book is Born on Third Base.

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